by L. Vocem
First published in Magic Realism
Doña Carmiña arrived back at the blue metal gate of her small house as she did everyday at about six-thirty in the morning. The sun began to make its presence. The dew on the red and yellow roses that she kept on that tinny plot of dirt that she proudly called her front yard began to evaporate. She noticed this time that there was a large puddle that looked like blood right in from her gate. She stopped, astonished at how large it was, and how could have she possibly missed it forty minutes earlier when she went out to Don Ramón Sosa's bakery to buy her bread.
She walked around the puddle, wondering if it really was blood, or was perhaps paint, or some other substance. She remembered when she was young, back at the farm, at how her mother used to cut the heads of chickens. She had a vivid image of how the blood looked, bright red, almost glowing, full of life, and how with time it began to turn darker, muddier. But this was the city, and nobody kept chickens anymore, and the people that did, were considered “campesinos,” ignorant peasants that should be back at the farms where they came from. Even though she had lived in the city long enough to consider herself a city person, she could still tell that was not chicken blood, or even a pig's, it had to be human blood, like the one pumping through her own veins and arteries.
She looked up, wondering if anyone else had seen it. Such a spectacle, it would be the talk of their street. It would be practically impossible for anyone to see it from the street. The line of cars parked by the curb concealed it, unless they were walking right by it. It would be even more difficult to see it from above the walls of the buildings across the streets. Buildings, that one by one had substituted the houses around hers, buildings that even though were newer, already looked like memories of another time, in outdated design styles, with mildew eating the old cracked paint.
She felt scared for a second and wanted to scream for the police, but she imagined how ridiculous that would be since they no longer patrolled her street on foot like they did in the old days. Now they only came when they were not needed, or like the other police, the one with an acronym for a name that she couldn't tell what it meant, who were always on a rush to go somewhere and never stopped to help anyone. She once had asked one of her sons, Ricardo, what did they do, looking so busy in their flashy brand new imported American cars. He didn't know for sure. “The important stuff,” he said, “you know mom, drugs, bank robberies, corrupt politicians, that sort of things.” After a pause he said, giving it some thought, “I don't think they do robberies, mainly political stuff, mom.”
She wanted to get in her house, so she could at least call the proper authorities, but the puddle was in her way, and unless she jumped, she was going to step on it. The blood looked quite fresh and she hated the idea of getting any on her slippers, or even on her feet. She began to study a way for her to go around. She placed the warm bread on the hood of a Chevy Nova that belonged to the son of a neighbor, and went close to the stucco wall that separated the street from her yard, and blindly, stuck her hand out with her keys and tried to twist open each lock. After some trying and perseverance, she managed open the gate , but from that angle it would be practically impossible to go in without loosing her balance and landing on the puddle of blood. She retreated carefully and took her brown paper bag of bread which was no longer warm. She looked at the open gate, at the cracked cement on the other side of the puddle, at her front wooden door several meters away, and decided that she was going to jump across. She took several steps and launched herself and all her years across what seemed like a big sea, and in mid-air realized that she was not going to make it to the other side. She landed on the puddle, quickly taking another step, and kept going until she was by her door. Then, without looking down, she rushed back and slammed the gate shut.
She sat for a while by her kitchen table trying to regain her strength. Then she looked for the phone number of the police. Before she called, she went to her bedroom, full of pictures of saints, lit candles and a large portrait of her late husband, Don Felipe “rest in peace” and changed her stained cloth house slippers for a pair of black leather pumps. She felt ashamed of herself for going out to the bakery in those all too comfortable house slippers instead of her black shoes which tortured her only minutes after putting them on. Perhaps everything that happened was a sign, a reminder that she needed to maintain the proper composure of a lady, rather than slacking off like a senile old person, or the campesinos, or those people who lived in the shanties, who had no manners.
Back in her kitchen, she put her bifocals on and dialed the phone number that she had found in her old phone directory for the police. A male voice answered and put her on hold. After a while he got back to her in a monotonous tone, sounding tired, annoyed, speaking in quick bursts. She told the man that there was a large puddle of blood in front of the gate of her house. He asked her if she had seen what happened or heard anything. She told him that her room was in the back and she slept very sound, so she had not heard anything out of the ordinary. The man took her address and promised her to send a patrol car and thanked her for doing her public duty.
She felt better, as if a great weight were lifted off her shoulders. She could now take her morning coffee, even if it was going to be with bread that was no longer hot out of the oven as she preferred. While preparing the expresso kettle, she wondered whether the incident happened before she went to the bakery or during her trip. She didn't remember seeing the puddle when she went out. But it was dark and she knew that her vision tended to fail her more than she cared to admit. She came to the conclusion that she would have stepped on it if it had been there when she left that morning. She rushed to her bedroom and took a closer look at her house slippers. Only one slipper was stained “the right one” which didn't prove anything because she could have stepped on the puddle with the same foot both times. She decided that she needed to pay no heed to the blood puddle, that the authorities when they arrived, would ascertain what actually had happened and to whom. To whom! That was something that she had not thought about until that very moment. She felt bad about it, as if it were her who perhaps had committed the crime. Was she so insensitive as to not even care that what lay there had belonged to a person, someone whom perhaps only hours ago was able to breathe, laugh, or sing and that the puddle was at one point warm and flowing inside them. She could not stand her own thoughts and began to hyperventilate. She leaned in front of a framed printed picture of Dr. Gregorio Hernandes, a man considered a saint, whose healing powers saved many at the beginning of the century . She prayed a rosary to whomever that blood belonged to, hoping they got better. But the undeniable and morbid idea that such amount of blood could only mean death went through her mind and distracted her from her prayer to the point that tears formed in her eyes. She prayed even harder, trying to eradicate any impure thought. But whose was it? Was it one of the kids in the neighborhood? For God's sake no, she hoped. Perhaps the owner of the Nova, who by this hour should be in school. Was it a thief, caught by the police, and then taken away? She remembered, bright and clear as if she was in front of the shapeless mass of blood, that it looked as if someone was dragged away into the street. And to one side the blob had the shape of a hand. She stopped praying and went to her living room, where she had pictures of her two sons, their wives and their many children, at different ages, different decades, some with long hair, others with short hair. Some photos were yellowing and loosing their color. In one corner was her pride and joy, even though it made her feel too old: the picture of her great grand son, Carlitos, in the hands of one of her granddaughters and her husband. She picked her knitting bag and set herself to work on the blue sweater and hat she was doing for him – yes, her pride and joy.
The warm mid-morning air told her that soon it would be lunch time, and that ample time had passed since she had made her phone call to the police and that nobody had come to see her. She worked on the sweater, remembering that nothing that the government ever did was on time, not even in her own days, and that eventually they would get there. The excitement of the day had kept her from planning or preparing anything for lunch. Fortunately, there were some leftovers from the night before that she could quickly re-heat.
Elena, one of her granddaughters, who was going to the university, called.
“Nana have you seen Cheo,” she asked, slightly upset. Elena asked her if Cheo, her brother, two years older and in the university as well, had come by to bother her about letting him use her car. She told Elena that he had not come by at all, even though it was fine if he wanted to use her Dodge Dart, which she was afraid to drive anymore in the crazy traffic of the city. Her grandchildren had enjoyed the car even more, taking it out on dates, going to the beach on weekends, and constantly fought over who would use the car, even though their respective parents didn't like them to use their grandmother's car. Elena accused Cheo of having no consideration for her Nana, as they all called her, or anyone else for that matter, for when he wanted something he got it even if he had to step on people. Elena was supposed to get the car to go shopping with several of her school friends, so it wasn't fair. Cheo had told Elena that he was going to need the car for something much more important and meaningful than going shopping. That had made Elena even more mad, she told Nana, for to Cheo everything that Elena did was insignificant compare with his activities. Doña Carmiña loved to hear her voice, so young, so full of strength. It broke the never ending loneliness and despair of her aging existence, which she many times had hoped never to endure and had asked the all mighty to take her to her beloved Don Fernando – rest in peace.
Her stomach began to growl and she knew with a clock work certitude that it was lunch time and nobody from the law had come to her door to investigate. She called the police station again and a different voice was on the other side of the telephone. The new voice was happy and amiable, and sounded responsible and caring. She told him that she had called earlier that morning about the blood incident. The voice apologized for their tardiness, and told her that they had it all under control, that they were already investigating the situation, and that she should not worry about it any longer. The voice concluded by thanking her for doing her public duty of notifying the authorities about the incident.
After lunch she began to think about the questions that the first man on the phone had asked and began to wonder if other people had seen or heard anything. She called Nora, who lived across the street on the third floor of a small building and asked her if she had seen of heard anything. Unfortunately, Nora, could not give her a straight answer, and before divulging any important information, she had to tell her about all the incidents that she had heard, seen or read about in her entire life, including all those in dubious tabloid newspapers that sold like hot bread on the street corner stand, and all that, just to tell her that at some point early in the morning she heard some shouting, car doors slamming and a car burning rubber so loud that she had to look out the window, but at that point she saw nothing but a deserted street with all the cars that are usually parked at the sides there, like it looked every morning on their crowded little street. She asked Nora if she heard any gun shots, like the first voice from the police had asked her rudely. Nora went about telling her how her husband used to have a gun, but that they sold it several years ago because it scared her with all his drinking, to then tell her that she couldn't recall any, unless the car doors slamming could have been gun shots, but she was almost sure that they were not.
It was time to plan for dinner and she was not going to let something that had nothing to do with her disrupt her life any longer. She had called the police twice and they had not done anything. She had waited for them and they never arrived. No wonder the country was going down, crime was up, and there was so much discontent with the government. But that was none of her business, but her son would complain when they came over for dinner. They would fight about what was right, what was wrong, where was the country going, who did this and who did that. But they always talked about politics after dinner, when they played dominoes and complained endlessly about something.
She put a sweater on, grabbed her purse and decided to go to the frutería to buy some potatoes, some yams and maybe some better yuca than what she was able to find in previous days. She took her cloth grocery bag, dusted it a little and folded it into a neat square, like a flag. She went out the door, opened the blue metal gate, which she had forgotten to lock back again. She stepped on top of the blood puddle, now dried and darker, like a huge stain. She moved to the side, hoping that it would not stick to her. But it was hard, cracking in some areas, soaking into the porous concrete. She couldn't believe that the police had not come to her door and asked her any question, even as a courtesy, besides, it was her the one who had made the phone call.
At the frutería, the potatoes looked good that day, so did the yams and the tomatoes, but the yuca once again, didn't look good. Most of the ladies were not talkative that afternoon as they usually were, and no one had mentioned anything about what could possibly had been the source of the blood, which surprised her, because they all walked by that same sidewalk in front of her house. She commented to several ladies what she had seen and they listened with disgust. Some of the ladies said that maybe it was a sign of the devil or something. Another one, who wore her hair under a scarf said that she had seen nothing and if she was smart too she would forget about it completely. “Who knows, they might blame you for it,” one of them said. When she went to pay, she told the man at the counter, Santiago, who owned the place, and had known for over thirty years. He interrupted her story and told her that one couldn't even trust the authorities these days, but he new better that it was wise to leave things alone when they didn't concern him and if she was smart she would leave things to the authorities to take care.
She was infuriated as she walked home, carrying her bag full of produce she no longer thought to be fresh. She spoke to herself in small burst, wishing that there was another frutería close by, that after knowing Santiago for thirty years he could have better manners. But maybe the neighborhood was going down, and it was about time that the police did something.
Several steps before arriving to her door, she saw one of the flashy new police cars begin to move in her direction. She could swear that they were parked behind the Nova only a few seconds before. They passed her. The patrol car had the acronym written very small on one side of the door and had no flashing lights on top. The two men inside wore stylish civilian clothes and dark glasses, like her grandson Cheo liked to wear even in the house, against his fathers wishes, to look cool. But on these men, the glasses looked cold and impersonal, she thought.
When she arrived at her blue gate, there it was, the puddle of blood, now dry, stained into the sidewalk. She wondered if they were going to send someone to clean it up, rope the area like they did in the dubbed American TV cop shows, or ask her some questions or whatever they were supposed to do, other than leave it there completely unattended like a vulgar oil stain. Instead, the men with the dark glasses, had just stared at her as they had passed by. She couldn't stand the idea of the puddle, the stain, right in front of her house. Like what the campesinos left on their yards after slaying a pig or a goat. She wanted to clean it up, remove the stain from her sidewalk, from her life, from her memory. She could not stand it any longer. So after opening the three locks, slowly walking to her front door, opening it with a different key, making the sign of the cross as she passed her room, she went into the kitchen and called the police again. She asked the man who answered the phone what was she supposed to do with the stain on her sidewalk. The man on the phone asked her what she was talking about. So once again she explained what had happened that morning. The man, again told her that he didn't have any record of what she was talking about, and that she must have imagined it, because he could see in his records all the calls they got that morning and there was nothing about a blood stain or anything like it. She couldn't believe that they no longer had any record of her previous calls. She got edgy and began to demand answers, so the man on the phone finally said “look lady, we’re very busy handling a lot of urgent cases right now to send a patrol car to look at some stain on your sidewalk. So if the stain bothers you, why don't you just clean the damn thing and forget about it!” Then he hung up. She held the telephone a distance from her face, looking in disbelief at the small holes in the black ear piece.
Before dark she took a mop, a bucket of hot water with a squirt of Pine-sol and went outside her blue gate where the stain was on her sidewalk. She soaked the mop on the water and then spread it on the sidewalk. She moped up and down as best as she could, picking up fragments of a not to distant past, turning the warm water with Pine-sol into a pink solution, erasing the last vestiges of a still fresh existence. She couldn't believe that the authorities were so low as to let her do their dirty work. Couldn't they at least send somebody to clean the sidewalk. People might begin to think that maybe it was a spell on her house, some witchcraft or voodoo. No sir. She would not allow that. She had always had a respectable home.
After she finished, after she had worked for at least one hour and had practically scraped the cement of its top layer, she saw how from under that clean, spotless sidewalk, the stain, the blood that had been there, began to make its presence again, as if it didn't want to go away into the past, but wanted her, the neighbors, the world to be aware of its existence, of what it had lived for, fought for, and on a cold quiet morning died for. She felt the stain come alive, with a voice, with a purpose and it scared her. She was nothing but an old woman, at the end of a long respectable life.
She looked at the pink water wavering on the bucket, at the mop, smelling of pine-sol and cleanliness, and the spot on the sidewalk and felt the urge to run, to call her sons, to call her grand daughters, to scream. How stupid she had been, for she now knew that it was her own blood laying there, that it was Cheo who had been killed.